The Istanbul Café – Short Story by Charlie Chin

by Charlie Chin. Posted May 19, 2022.

Introduction: There’s nothing quite like a good con as it unspools in movies like “The Sting,” “The Grifters,” “American Hustle”, or any of “Oceans 11,12, 13” movies.  The con is the essence of acting, i.e., convincing you of a desired reality that may not be what it appears to be. Charlie Chin explores this con with a nostalgic look at a time-honored literary tradition. You’ll know what I mean when you get to the end.

      Omar Rangoon never actually broke the law, he just bent it a little.

      Where Omar came from was anybody’s guess.  He looked Cantonese but he claimed that he was from Tajikistan.   But then of course, this is America, a place where anybody can invent themselves.  All that people knew for sure was that Omar was an Asian Pacific Islander.  That meant was he came from someplace in half of the known world.  He ran the Istanbul Café over on East Broadway in New York Chinatown, a hangout for Two-bit hustlers, musicians, writers, and people who got nervous when you said the word, “Immigration.”

Photo by Paul Marshall (AKA Rally Tog) on Unsplash

      Omar made his first money selling one-inch square plots of land for a hundred dollars a piece on Bedloes Island where the statue of Liberty stands.   “Own a piece of Freedom” was the motto for his company.  Because most Americans are weak on history and don’t read what they sign, they didn’t realize there hasn’t been a Bedloes Island since 1956 when it was renamed “Liberty Island.”   He printed up certificates of ownership for his customers, but he was selling land that didn’t exist.  When one or two people complained, he just gave them their money back.  He made a fortune.   The profits he made went into Istanbul Café.

     Omar wore a black bowtie and a white dinner jacket in the cafe, he thought it fit in with the theme of the place.   Most people went to the cafe because they liked the atmosphere, that and the Turkish coffee and Baklava that he served.  Then one mild spring day the front door swung open, and a woman walked in.  All conversation in the place to come to a halt.  Omar saw three things right away.   She was beautiful, she was blond, and she was Korean.

       Omar pulled his jacket sleeves down, adjust his bowtie, and then hurriedly scurried across the room to present himself,

    “Hello Miss, I am the owner here, can I be of any help?”   She looked around, took in the room, and then answered,

   “I’m looking for a Mr. Omar Rangoon.”  Tony shrugged and did a little bow.

    “You have found him.  What can I do for you?”

     “I have a matter of some delicacy to discuss.  Is there some place we can talk?”  Omar gently guided her by the elbow to his private café table in the back.  He snapped his fingers at Christine the waitress and called out,

     “Two Ouzo.”  He inquired,

     “May I know your name Miss?”

    “It’s Kim, Gina Kim.”  The woman took out a gold cigarette case from her purse and placed a cigarette in her mouth.  Omar started to say it was illegal to smoke inside the café but changed his mind.  She looked expectantly at her host, and he brought out a box of matches with a flourish.

    “Allow me.”

    “You are too kind.”  She leaned forward to let him light the end of the cigarette, took a long, deep drag from it, and exhaled in Omar’s direction.  He inhaled the cloud as if it were perfume.  She looked around again with a cool eye.  After another drag on her cigarette she whispered,

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     “This is very nice place you have here Mr.  Rangoon.  My friends told me it had great ambience and that the owner was quite handsome, and I see that they were right on both accounts.”  Omar didn’t miss the overtone in her voice.

     “Tell me Miss Kim, what the problem is and how I can be of assistance.”  She seemed hesitant to speak,

     “Have you ever heard of the Bulgarian Box”?  Omar drew a blank,

     “No, what is it?”   The one who called herself Gina Kim, glanced around quickly,

     “Well Mr. Rangoon, I don’t know why, but for some reason I trust you.  You see the Bulgarian Box is the most sought-after relic of the former Russian Empirical court.  Commissioned by Czar Nicolas himself just a year before the Russian Revolution of 1917.   Before the overthrow, the Imperial court was getting ready to flee the country.  The problem was money.  They had the imperial jewels, but they didn’t have the cash if they fled to France or Great Britain.   So, they employed a gifted young inventor, who had found a way to duplicate bank notes with a secret machine he invented.  It appeared to be just an ornate wooded box, but it was much, much more than that.

     You see if you fed it a bank note, a pound note, or a dollar bill, in the rear slot, and you turned the crank on the side, it would print out notes from the front slot.  As many as is wanted, perfect replicas in every way. “

      Omar was immediately interested.  He asked,

     “So, you can make counterfeit money with this box.?”   She shook her head and clarified,

     “No, Mr. Rangoon.  The bills are exact replicas, not counterfeit.”   Tony had some experience in such matters and saw the problem right away.

     “Well Miss Kim, if somebody wanted to, they could just simply photocopy a dollar bill or a pound note many times, but then of course, all the notes would have the same serial number.  Is that what you’re talking about?”  Again, she shook her head and smiled,

     “No, the genius of it is, all you have to do is set the dial and the bills come out with sequential serial numbers.”

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     “What about the paper?”  Gina gave him a knowing look and smiled.

     “Paper that is close to the feel and texture of the real notes as can be bought, if one knows where.”  Omar knew that it was too good to be true, but he was intrigued.   He sat back and crossed his arms tightly.

     “May I ask why you decided to come to me?”   The woman snuffed out her cigarette on the coffee cup saucer and answered,

    “Allow me to explain.  I just recently tracked the box down to New York, I hurried here to make arrangements to buy it.  The current owner is a former director of a museum of Russian artifacts.  He bought it for himself because it is ornately decorated but he has no idea of its real value.  He plans to sell it at an auction three days from now.  But my original investors in South Korea have become nervous about a possible impending conflict with North Korea.  They have backed out of the negotiations and left me without funds Mr.  Rangoon.”  He grinned,

    “Just call me Omar.   Most people do.”  She continued,

     “What I need are two things, somebody to loan me the money to buy the box from its current owner before Saturday.  And two, a place to pass the bills that won’t arouse suspicion.  I think you and this cafe fit that bill Mr. Rangoon.  Oh sorry, I mean Omar.”

     “How much money would you need to get the box?”

     “About 20,000 dollars US, in cash.  The investor’s profit would be over a million.    Do you have those kind of resources Mr. Rangoon?” She sat back and gave him a challenging stare.

     “A piece of cake Miss Kim.  But I’ll have to confer with my business associates first.”

     Omar was stalling because he was in a bind.  He wanted very much to get to know Miss Kim better but this whole thing had “con game” written all over it.   He told her he would think it over and would tell her what he decided if she came back the next day at the same time.  All Omar knew was that he very much wanted to see her again.

    The next night was very warm, even for April, and Gina showed up in a scanty little black dress and stiletto heel sandals carrying a large shoulder bag.  When she stood against the lights, you could see she was not wearing any undergarments.

    “Ah Miss Kim, what a pleasure.”  After gallantly kissing her hand, Omar sat her at table 86 in the back.   He ordered a bottle and two glasses, then broke the ice with several shots of Ouzo, Omar couldn’t hide the fact that he was in love, or something pretty close to it.  For her part, as they talked, Gina’s lips pouted slightly, her knees gently opened, and she kept touching her hair.   She felt the magic also.

      At this point Omar reached under his jacket and presented her with an 8 by 11 inch manila envelope.  She looked surprised for a second and asked,

    “What’s this?”  He leaned into her and whispered,

     “The money we discussed.  Twenty thousand in hundred-dollar bills.”  She peeked quickly at the contents, gave him a broad smile and pushed the envelope back into his hand.

     “Let’s not spoil the moment with talk of money.  We’ll deal with it later.  Do you live anywhere close by, Omar?”

     “I live close enough.”  Omar quickly told Christine the waitress she was in charge and took Gina to his apartment.   Once inside the apartment, before he could turn the lights on, Gina pressed her body against his and held her head up expectantly.  As they kissed, her tongue found his and caused an electric shock to run through his spine.  She whispered in his ear,

    “If you can get my clothes off in less than three minutes, I’ll do something to you, that you’ll never forget.”  Omar put the manila envelope on the coffee table and tried to beat the deadline.   In record time they were naked and in bed.  He discovered she wasn’t bragging.  The love making was more than Omar ever dreamed of.  Over the next couple of hours, she kept edging him several times, until he exploded with pleasure.  Exhausted, he fell asleep.  The next morning, he awoke to see the soft sun light from the window fall on her pale nude body.

    Gina dressed teasingly slow to Omar’s delight.  She padded to the kitchen in her bare feet and made a pot of coffee.  After pouring him a cup, she gave him a kiss and then stood and picked up the manila envelope that lay on the table.  A smile crossed her face, she slipped into her shoes, and as a finishing touch, she picked up her large shoulder bag, reached in and took out a petite five shot Beretta handgun.  She pointed it at Omar’s head,

    “I’m sorry, but we’ve come to the end of our relationship now Omar.”  He was not completely surprised.  He leaned back in the bed on the pillows and clasped his hands behind his head.   With a lingering look of regret on his face,

Photo by Sofia Sforza on Unsplash

  “So, let me guess, there’s no Bulgarian Box.  You know, Gina, it doesn’t have to end here.  With your looks and my connections, we could do alright.  I have friends in Singapore and Macau.  We could work a “Long Con” over there.”  Gina sighed deeply, used her left hand to put the manila envelope in her shoulder bag, kept the gun pointed at him, and walked backwards towards the door.

    ‘I like you, Omar, I really do.  And maybe I’m missing my chance for happiness, but I wouldn’t trust you as far as I could throw a refrigerator.  Goodbye, it’s been sweet.”  With that she turned and with one smooth move closed the door and locked it behind her.  She walked briskly to Chatham Square and held her hand up in the air.  A Jamaican cab driver magically showed up.   She got in and gave simple instructions.

    “Grand Central Station please, and hurry, I have a train to catch.”  Only after she was seated on the Boston Express and the train was well underway, did she relax and open the envelope.  She counted the bills with pleasure, until she noticed something.  All the crisp new hundred bills in the envelope had the same serial number.

Photo by Neil Mewes on Unsplash

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Author’s Bio: Charlie Chin is an author, singer/songwriter, and master storyteller. He served as the Community Education Director at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City and as Artist-in-Residence at the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco. He is the author of several children’s books, including China’s Bravest Girl (1992) and Clever Bird (1996).

Cover Photo:

Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash

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